My mother was living in a house called Glenlea in Dulwich. It was a huge house standing within its own grounds and had been taken over by whatever Department of the War Office was responsible for receiving, training and returning Dutch escapees from German occupied Holland, who wished to become saboteurs and Resistance Fighters. A cousin of ours who was a ship’s captain pre-war, and had lost a leg in an action earlier in the war, was now a Commander in the Navy, liaising with the exiled, Dutch government officials. It was uncharitably suggested by some in the family that he had been a smuggler before the war, so this might account for his close association with the Netherlands. For whatever reason, he set up this sort of spy school and then persuaded my mother to take charge as housekeeper. When I went home on leave, I had permission to stay there at Glenlea with the ‘Dutch Boys’, as she called them, and was privy to much that went on. They had a radio room where they learned to use radio transmitters and, one assumes, code books although that was never discussed. On one side of the garden was a very tall tree growing close to a wall and from the tree a thick rope hung. I understand that the routine was to climb onto the wall with the rope and then, swing like Tarzan, until fully extended, let go and thus learn the technique of landing with a parachute.
Every Sunday evening, a ritual was performed. The BBC would play, in turn, the National Anthem of each country in exile. The radio was on, the evening meal was over and we sat, smoking, drinking, all were listening. When it was the National Anthem of the Netherlands, the men would stand, some would sing, and at the end they would toast Queen Wilhelmina in unison. Over weeks the men would disappear from time to time to go on courses elsewhere and then return, all without comment. The idea was that no one should know if they had left on an operation or merely a course. In spite of these precautions many were caught as they landed in Holland. It was said later that one of the men I used to go to London with for nights out was a Nazi spy passing information. I was never able to confirm that.
I remember one of the men in particular, but not his name. He had been caught by the Nazis and had escaped. He arrived in England, either through Sweden and the North Sea, or through Europe to Spain and then London. When he arrived in England he had a large strawberry mark, on his face, yet he was so keen to get back into the fray he was prepared to undergo a skin graft. When I last saw him his face had not healed enough for him to leave our country. Many of the men had come from the Dutch East Indies.
The Doodle-Bug Sophie and I were just married, on our honeymoon and staying in a hotel almost opposite Glenlea. We would travel to the City by train,. Each night, coming home from London, as we handed in the ticket to the collector on the station at Dulwich he would say ‘Sorry you’ve got to walk!’ until this became a family saying. It was while we were at the hotel that Sophie first became acquainted with the Buzz Bomb. During one night, as she was a lighter sleeper than I, the siren must have woken her and then she heard the wavering, sometimes stuttering buzz of the bomb, sounding for all the world like a two-stroke motorbike with fuel troubles.
Unsurprisingly she woke me and then followed a conversation for which she has never really forgiven me. She has always considered that I acted boorishly, while I was only being logical. The difference between our outlooks rested with the facts that while I had become hardened to the vagaries of war in all its guises, she had only experienced a few air raids, and, being half asleep I reacted normally instead of in my new role as protector of the Soph.
“What’s that?” Soph – fearful. “It’s a Doodle-bug.” “It’s a what?” “It’s a Doodle-bug, a flying bomb.” “Oh my God!” “Don’t worry, Dear, if you can hear it you’re safe and if you can’t its too late to do anything about it.” “You’re dead?” “Yes. Go back to sleep, it’ll be all right, we get hundreds of them all the time.” “You expect me to go to sleep? Shouldn’t we be in a shelter?” Then followed the placation, the reassurance, all of which was worth being woken up for, but in spite of that I was never really forgiven.